RODEO and Christianity might be polar opposites, but for Rob and Sage Wiltshire it is the core of who they are.
Rob is the senior pastor at Echuca Epicentre Church, and with Sage by his side they have been delivering the word of the Lord to Echuca and beyond since 2017.
A farrier by trade, Rob never envisaged himself as a pastor although religion has always featured heavily in his life, as has rodeo.
In fact rodeo is where he met Sage, despite them growing up on opposite sides of the country.
Sage grew up in a family involved in rodeo for generations in Western Australia, while Victorian Rob had always dreamed of being a bull rider.
Rob was always encouraged by his father, who used to sit him atop a calf and send him flying across the paddock when he was just a little boy, while Sage spent her childhood on the back of a horse, competing at rodeos and riding racehorses for pocket money.
“As kids growing up rodeo was our life and I just loved going as fast as I could barrel racing and roping. To be successful you have to work with your horse and you have to form a real relationship if you want to succeed,” Sage said.
“I used to ride my horse every day before I rode any others. I was lucky I never had any bad falls, and I hope to one day return to the sport again.”
The life of a bull rider could be best described as a little more hazardous and Rob has had a list of broken bones over his many years of competing.
“You can't ride a bull and not have a few problems,” Rob said with a laugh.
“I was pretty lucky though and I stopped before I had any serious injuries, just plenty of broken bones and torn muscles,” he said.
Rob competed in several national finals over his 12-year career and won a few Australian rodeos.
“I wasn't the world's best competitor but towards the end of my career I was quite consistent and there were some significant moments to reflect on, including making the finals in America and coming runner-up in several titles but I never got that gold buckle,” he said.
Sage, on the other hand, has won a range of gold buckles across her 15-year career which includes WA state titles for barrel racing and break-away roping.
She also was a strong overseas competitor, competing in and winning some significant rodeos in America.
Rob met Sage's brothers while competing in WA and even though it took him a little bit of effort to finally get Sage's number, the couple met and married 18 months later.
They now have three daughters: Miley, 10, Georgia, 9, and Bobby, 6.
Religion has always featured heavily in the lives of both families, but when Rob began religious studies he didn't really undertake them with the goal of becoming a pastor.
“When the previous pastor moved on, I felt very strongly God was asking us to take on this role — we both prayed a lot on it and felt like it was something we had to do,” Rob said.
“Faith is not simple and it can make life difficult when you believe in something very strongly and sometimes it can be hard to be Christian when there might be something you want to do but Jesus doesn't agree with — there are always blessings and struggles.”
In their leadership role the couple has always striven to be transparent and relatable.
Sage admits she struggled with her role in the beginning.
“I didn't want anyone to treat our family differently and I didn't want people to expect us to be perfect. I have always just wanted to be me and this was something I had to pray on,” she said.
“We are just trying to be transparent and relatable,” Rob said.
“We all have areas of our life that are difficult and we don't hide away from those, whether I am standing up the front preaching or having a coffee with someone.”
Rob and Sage firmly believe for religion to remain relevant no matter what denomination, it must move with the times, which can itself become controversial among parishioners.
“It is always hard when you step into a new role because you are different to the person before you,” Rob said.
Initially congregation numbers did drop away, but during the past year or so there has been a real resurgence.
“As the world changes, people are asking more questions and Jesus does have the answers — even if at times they may not be easy,” Rob said.
“Our denomination, Australian Christian Churches, is relatable and moving with the times — and with COVID-19 church services have grown worldwide, even with the shutting down of face-to-face services.”
Epicentre has taken its services online through Facebook and YouTube.
Sage said they had people watching across the country.
“Faith is our belief,” she said.
“We believe in the work of God in our daily life, loving and helping others and believing in Jesus — kindness inspires kindness in others.”